Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Wordsworth’s Prelude – and remembering Robert Woof

Dr Robert Woof, with his wife, the Wordsworth scholar Dr Pamela Woof

In the current strange time of the Covid19 lockdown, one unexpected pleasure has been to hear – on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, of all unexpected places – Sir Ian McKellen’s reading of passages from William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude.

It’s a fine reading, in McKellen’s thoughtful, resonant voice, of selected highlights – including the famous ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ passage about the poet’s youthful optimism regarding the French Revolution.

But for me, a completely unexpected pleasure – though a very poignant and almost shocking one – was to hear, all of a sudden, the episodes being introduced each time by a few brief words in the voice of my old friend Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust and Dove Cottage, Grasmere.

Robert (1931-2005) was the world’s leading Wordsworth scholar, and also an extraordinary man: humorous, difficult, charming, eloquent, devious, generous, loveable and much more. It was his work, at the head of a matchless team of staff, that turned Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former home, from a minor ‘heritage’ destination into a powerhouse of scholarship and creativity, nationally recognised as an exemplary museum and centre of culture and creativity.

Robert was Director when I went in the late 1970s to research my biography of Thomas De Quincey; and it was his idea that I should assemble a team to edit De Quincey’s complete works – a project which came to fruition in a 21-volume edition from the London publisher Pickering and Chatto in 2000-2003.

Robert was a source of endless wise advice and friendly comfort through these difficult projects. His wry sense of humour and his endless knowledge were great resources. He taught me resilience and a lot about handling people (I had a team of ten co-editors to work with!).

He was, above all, a wonderful reader and interpreter of Wordsworth. His rich, gentle, slightly grainy Northern voice was exactly right, and his understanding of the poetry was second to none. In fact, if anyone could have read The Prelude better than Ian McKellen, it might have been Robert Woof.

Sadly, Robert died in 2005, just after the completion of the Wordsworth Trust’s new Collections Centre – the ‘Jerwood Centre’ – into which he’d put his heart and soul. Indeed, I think that, though seriously ill, he willed himself to live long enough to see it complete and open.

It was a complete shock to hear his voice introducing a passage of McKellen’s reading. The presenter didn’t mention his name, the announcer never credited him; since the reading was clearly from an archive, I wondered if anyone at the BBC knew who he was, or even realised that he was there alongside McKellen. I’ll admit that I shed a few tears when I heard my old friend’s voice so suddenly, with all his old clarity and thoughtful eloquence.

In these strange days, it was oddly like getting a message from a friend who is gone, in one sense; but who is in another way very much present for me, and will always be.

SAVE GRASMERE: please sign this petition!

We’re all appalled to hear that there are plans to put 10 hi-tech houseboats, with all the attendant infrastructure, noise and disruption, on the lake at Grasmere.

The plans are motivated purely by profit, and are the brainchild of the Lowther Estate, one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the Lake District.

A petition to stop this greedy and ugly plan is already gathering signatures: please sign it now! – https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes

The extraordinary idea – it’s hard to believe it’s not a nightmare – is to put no less than TEN large powered residential craft permanently onto the lake. Grasmere is one of the smaller lakes, and has always been particularly tranquil. You can hire a rowing boat there for a few hours, and you can fish or swim. But these large crowded permanent powered boats would change the character of the lake and the whole area very much for the worse.

The writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has written to the press that the plan would ‘rip the heart out’ of the peace and beauty of Grasmere. ‘Should the estate get permission then I would argue that the Lake District could and should lose its status as a World Heritage Site’. The boats – to be used by well-heeled holidaymakers – would, he says, ‘end up as 24-hour music-throbbing discos’. They would also require all the support structures – access roads, charging terminals and many other things – which would destroy the tranquil margins of the lake.

The National Trust are firmly opposed to the plan but they need support as the legal position is unclear

UNESCO World Heritage status depends on the Lake District continuing as a living and working landscape but also preserving its environmental and aesthetic character as a traditional landscape. Its literary heritage has also to be preserved, and the plans would have a seriously negative impact on Town End, the lakeside part of Grasmere village where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived after 1799.

Claims that opposition to the plans are ‘snobbery’ are totally misguided. For a start, the plans are hatched by Lakeland’s wealthiest private landowner purely for private gain. Secondly, it is important that the diverse character of the various lakes be preserved. Windermere already has a ferry, a year-round steamer service, pleasure boats and houseboats. Many of these features are also present on Derwentwater and Ullswater. That’s where this kind of plan belongs. The smaller and quieter lakes need to keep their separate and varied character, not be pressed into service as noisy, expensive playgrounds.

Grasmere has come into the line of fire simply because it belongs to the Lowther Estate. No doubt their accountants see it as an ‘asset’ that isn’t being properly ‘exploited’. If that attitude had prevailed in the past, we wouldn’t have the National Parks.

So please sign the petition, tell your friends, send them the link, and do all you can to oppose this unpleasant plan!

https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes

Knausgaard’s Masterpiece

I’ve recently finished The End, the appropriately-titled sixth and last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic ‘novel’ My Struggle. An extraordinary book, and I think a very fine one.

That said, it has to be admitted that it’s not an easy read, despite being extremely gripping, suspenseful, stimulating and emotionally-wrenching at times. Indeed, I’d say that it requires as much effort to read this sixth volume as it takes to read all the previous five put together.

This isn’t just a question of length – though this final volume, at 1160 pages, is longer than any of the earlier ones. It’s also, more importantly, due to the nature of the material. The narrative is certainly gripping – when we have narrative (which we do for a good part of the time). This is partly because the autobiographical story has now caught up with the point where Knausgaard’s first volume, A Death in the Family¸ is being published. And (not surprisingly, given its utterly honest and completely unvarnished confessional realism) Knaussgaard finds that a lot of people really don’t like it.

Despite the fact that he has checked with everyone mentioned explicitly in his narrative, and changed names etc when necessary, it still isn’t enough. His uncle (who doesn’t really figure significantly in the earlier volume) is beside himself with fury about the book, because it depicts the alcoholic death of Knausgaard’s father (the uncle’s brother) in a filthy house and the uncle feels Knaussgaard is letting the entire family down. He resorts to threats of legal action (empty, because you can’t in any case libel the dead, and no one else is criticised), abusive phone calls and any other weapon he can find.

Knausgaard finds that the one thing people don’t want from a writer is honesty. And we get the impression that tidy, bourgeois Scandinavian society can’t face the truth about itself, even told with the best intentions.

Then there is a dreadful suspense that builds around the mental health of Knausgaard’s wife, who turns out to be bipolar and towards the end of the book is sunk in a suicidal depression from which it seems she may never recover. You read the last section of the book in profound concern about the outcome.

All of this is wonderful, and told with Knausgaard’s remarkable, obsessive, close-up realism, which seems to give you every moment and gesture – making you look freshly and closely at the details of your own life.

But the book turns away from these things and at certain points becomes a colossal essay, first on the boyhood of Hitler (of whom, despite his overall title – My Struggle – Knausgaard is absolutely not an admirer), and then on Paul Celan’s poem ‘Engführung’. And extraordinarily, even as he is writing these passages, to his near-disbelief the massacre of teenagers by Anders Brivik on Utoya Island takes place. Knausgaard’s treatment of all this is not in any way sensationalistic; indeed he writes so thoughtfully and with such care that many readers will probably be bored or just bogged down.

And the passages confirm my suspicion that Knausgaard isn’t really a novelist at all. I think the best label for him is ‘existential philosopher’. Like Kierkegaard, he’s using the material of his own life, mercilessly, as the material for reflection. And though he writes in narrative much of the time, it isn’t fiction, and we recall that Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard all told stories to embody their ideas.

How well Knausgaard’s work will stand the test of time remains to be seen. I’ve been gripped by it; and I think Volume I, A Death in the Family, is a masterpiece. Whether I’d plough through all the other volumes again I’m not sure. A Norwegian Proust (as he’s been called) he certainly ain’t. He doesn’t have the subtlety, the stylistic beauty or the contemplative poise of Proust. Knausgaard is angry, frustrated, often crude and impatient, often very funny. But he has done something wholly original and, I suspect, profound. I recommend him strongly.

Selecting Jeremy Reed

Good news today: at last, the Selected Poems of Jeremy Reed, on which I’ve been working for more than three years, will be published by Shearsman – probably in 2020. It’s a big, generous selection – maybe some 300 pages – but it isn’t a page too long, or a poem too many.

Jeremy Reed – An elusive figure, but an exciting reader if you can catch him!

Jeremy Reed (born 1951) is quite possibly the most talented poet of my generation, and certainly the most prolific, with something over fifty published collections to his credit. He has won many awards. But his reclusive nature, and the sheer vast number of his publications, mean that he’s unfamiliar to the present-day poetry public, and even if people are interested, they don’t know where to start in his vast oeuvre.

The plan of Collusive Strangers: Selected Poems 1979-2020 will be to provide a map to this amazing poet’s development, with a selection of his very best work.

It was a close thing. I prepared the book for publication by Enitharmon Press, who went bust just as I was submitting the text. But the news that Shearsman will take it on is a huge boost and a great delight. Hopefully Reed’s work will again find the readers it deserves.

Jeremy Reed has been a poet of huge variety. In the 1970s and ‘80s he was famous for writing the best nature poems since John Clare, and received accolades from the likes of Seamus Heaney. Later he wrote with unexampled vividness about the AIDS epidemic, about the cultural phenomenon of British pop, about drugs and cyberspace. In the Blair era he wrote scorchingly about politics. His poems have taken in Sci-Fi (he was a friend of J.G. Ballard) and many aspects of sexuality. He is an unexampled modern writer on landscape and the street life of London.

Reed is also a poet other writers should learn from. His vocabulary is enormous, his range of forms protean. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s time you did. If thought he’d stopped writing, you were wrong. If you heard he was eccentric, uncooperative, troublesome, you were right; but he’s an important poet. This selection will prove it, and show you where to start appreciating perhaps the most remarkable poet of our time.

A STORY OF FIVE LEMONS

In the past few days I’ve been contacted by quite a number of students from Texas, who told me that my poem ‘Five Lemons’ was set as an essay subject for their IB exam (I’m guessing that’s International Baccalaureate?). They mostly seem to have liked the poem but they also ask for interpretations of it. Since it isn’t possible for me to discuss the poem with everyone individually, I’m writing this to tell the story of the poem and offer a few comments. I hope they’re helpful!

Free stock photo of food, healthy, nature, water

But first, here’s the poem for those who don’t know it:

FIVE LEMONS

Here are five lemons from the poet’s garden,

the colour of white gold and icy sunshine,

flooded with green around the pointed nipples.

My younger daughter cuts one into quarters,

careful of fingers, bites the white-furred pith out,

devours the quartz-white segments with her eyes shut,

sighing and swaying in the sharp enjoyment.

 

Here are four lemons from the poet’s garden:

one perched on three, a perfect tetrahedron.

The poet’s widow showed me where to pick them,

kindly and shrewd, helping me find the best ones,

holding the branch down while I snapped the stalks off,

the cold breeze in our faces from the mountain.

We’ll halve this one and squeeze it over couscous.

 

Here are three lemons from the poet’s garden

still in the bowl, turned in a neat triangle,

yellower now. My elder daughter chooses,

after long thought, one for her still-life painting,

the twisted leaves like green airplane-propellers

with a Cezanne pear and a Braque violin,

fractured into art-deco Cubist slices.

 

Here are two lemons from the poet’s garden

below his tall house on the terraced hillside,

red earth black-pitted with his fallen olives

between the gnarled trunks trailing silver foliage,

beside the boulders of the dusty torrent

rainless above that sea of sparkling turquoise.

The juice is perfect for a tuna salad.

 

Here is a lemon from the poet’s garden,

the last of them. Long is the poet gone,

silent his grave on the hilltop under the cypress,

long the shadows drawn by moon and sun

out from the low walls and high gate of the graveyard.

I press the waxy peel to my face and breathe it.

There are no words for what the fragrance tells me.

 

So here’s the story. In 1997 I was asked to edit The White Goddess, Robert Graves’s wonderful book about myth and poetic inspiration, for a new collected edition of Graves’s writings. Graves (1895-1985) had died twelve years earlier, and though he was an English poet and novelist (best known probably for I Claudius), he had lived in the village of Deya in Majorca. His son William invited me over there, to see Graves’s own copy of the book, which had many corrections and alterations that needed to be put into the new edition.

I was hugely excited because it was reading Graves’s work that had first turned me on to poetry, something which changed my life and has dominated it happily ever since.

La Casa de Robert Graves

So I went to Deya. Robert Graves’s house, where his widow Beryl still lived, was on the hillside just outside the village. It had a sloping garden with fruit trees and olive trees. Beryl welcomed me into the house, where nothing had changed since Robert Graves’s death. His hats were still on the hatpegs, his coats were in the closet in the entrance hall. Beryl said ‘You’d better work in here!’ and took me into Graves’s study.

Everything was just as he’d left it: his pens and pencils, coins and little pebbles and other trinkets were on the desk, his books were on the shelves, there was an unfinished letter which he’d never signed lying on one of the surfaces. The atmosphere was electric: completely magical. So I sat in Robert Graves’s chair, at his desk, surrounded by his books and possessions, and Beryl brought me his copy of The White Goddess with all his markings in it, and I began work.

Each day Beryl would give me lunch. Although she was living out in the Majorcan mountains, her household was completely English. She had two cats and a little dog, she had the Times Literary Supplement delivered every week, she had an ‘Aga’ stove, and for lunch she made things like scrambled eggs on toast, and bananas and custard. She was delightful.

At the end of the week I had finished my work on the book, but before I left Beryl took me down into the orchard below the house and helped me to pick the lemons, just as I’ve described in the poem. (The ‘dusty torrent’ is one of the ‘torrents’ or watercourses which run down the parched Majorcan hillsides between the olive groves; they fill up with water at certain times of year, or in summer at certain hours when the limited water supply is opened up to flow in that direction – the neighbours take turns to have the water, because it’s so scarce – so the ‘torrent’ is really more of a ‘channel’.)

I took the lemons home, and the poem describes what happened to them.

Now, about interpretation. Some people have asked me what the poem means, or to give them an interpretation, or to explain it to them. I don’t think that is really possible, because a poem doesn’t have just one meaning. It means different things to different people. Obviously we can all agree that a lemon is a lemon, and that turquoise is a colour we recognise; but once the poem is written it becomes an object, a thing that people can look at from different angles and turn over in their minds and reflect on. And everyone will come up with a different interpretation. There’s no single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation, and I love it when people see things in my poems that I didn’t know were there!

That’s as it should be. A poem isn’t a riddle that has a single correct answer. It’s more like a painting: everyone can look at it, and each person can find something different there. And as long as what you find fits with the words, then it’s right. The more meanings the better!

I can add few details. Obviously the poet’s garden – for me – is Robert Graves’s garden. (But maybe it could be any poet’s garden!) The grave is his (sorry about the repetition of the word ‘grave’, it can’t be helped!) – a very simple village grave in the small churchyard at Deya on the hilltop, which does have a low stone wall and then a tall gate which sticks up. But again it could be any poet who has died.

In the poem I think I’m a bit sad at the end as I smell the fragrance of the last lemon. It’s my final contact with the place and the experience, and with Beryl, and it’s like a gift from the poet himself; but there are some things you can’t put into words, so the poem ends maybe with a touch of sadness, a memory that’s valuable but also admitting that even in a poem you can’t say everything.

So my warmest thanks to all the people who wrote to me, for your generous appreciation of the poem. I hope you really enjoyed it even though it came to you as part of a test – maybe not the best way to meet a poem! I hope it left some happy pictures in your minds, and also a pleasant scent of lemons!

If you ever want to visit the the house – La Casa de Robert Graves – the website is here:

http://www.lacasaderobertgraves.org/en/

In the garden at Deya – with some more lemons!